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Like ankle, knee, and thumb sprains, wrist sprains are fairly common and can happen in mere moments, often when the wrist is temporarily dislocated from the joint upon impact (i.e. when you fall and brace yourself by sticking your arms straight out). A sprain affects the ligaments which help hold a joint together, not the tendons or muscles. In the case of the wrist, the most commonly sprained ligament is the scapholunate ligament which sits between the small scaphoid and lunate bones of the wrist.
When a ligament is overstretched, it can incur partial to complete tears to its fibers – this is essentially what the “sprain” is. The body immediately responds to this type of injury by flooding the area with fluid and white blood cells to aid tissue repair and ward off infection.
If your wrist sprain presents with only mild swelling and discomfort, you can initiate treatment at home with basic injury care practices including:
Resting the injured arm (avoid using that forearm, wrist, or hand of the injured arm).
Apply an ice pack, soak your wrist in slushy ice water, or wrap it with a cold compression sleeve to help numb spasming nerve endings and reduce swelling.
Wrap the palm and wrist with a compression wrap made from elastic or neoprene. Compression helps promote blood flow and combat inflammation.
Elevate the injured arm above heart level, i.e. prop it up on some pillows while you’re sitting on the couch.
If the wrist sprain is quickly accompanied by more significant swelling and pain, severe bruising under the skin, wrist deformity, numbness, inability to move the joint or grasp/hold something with your hand, apply an ice pack and get to a doctor right away.
A doctor will be able to conduct a physical examination and imaging tests as necessary to see if there has been a more serious injury like a complete ligament tear in the wrist or even a bone fracture. They may also recommend splinting or bracing the injured wrist to restrict motion, immobilize the joint, and keep the arm in correct alignment. Pain relievers like over-the-counter ibuprofen or naproxen sodium can help with inflammation and pain as well.